Thoughtful v Mindful

I have just returned from a walk on which I had a very simple insight: I try awfully hard (and unsuccessfully) to be Mindful, but I have sort of lost Thoughtfulness in the shuffle. They are both very important to the kind of life I want to live, as my attempts to be Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, etc. daily demonstrate, but these days, I am more just a reactive, emotionally flooded disaster than a sage or holy person.

Never one to quote the dictionary, I will give my take on the difference between these two words:

A Thoughtful person considers a matter carefully, with reason leading the way.
A Mindful person is aware of each thought, feeling, and sensation present in any given moment.

Thoughtfulness is geared a little more toward action, and Mindfulness toward observation.

To me, there is also a matter of degree – thoughtfulness, while still a challenge, seems a lot more in reach than mindfulness. Thoughtfulness involves bringing one part of yourself to bear on one aspect of your existence. I have “done” thoughtfulness up right many hundreds of times; mindfulness maybe a handful. My focus has been a lot on the latter recently, but it has occurred to me that perhaps I should aim a little lower and at least try to be a little more thoughtful from time to time. I have my hands plenty full with that, without trying to achieve enlightenment or Nirvana or even a lesser goal like serenity.

Observe: I went out for a walk this evening when a storm was imminent. I was angry at having been cooped up all day doing my repetitive household chores and repetitive thought patterns. Everyone here suggested I figure out an alternative but, out of pure reactivity, I insisted on leaving. My SEVEN-YEAR-OLD daughter gave me an umbrella on my way out the door.

Five minutes in, the heavens opened, and thousands of cold, sharp knives stabbed my back for the next forty minutes. It turns out that umbrella, in addition to being far too small to cover 90 percent of my body, also had a hole right in the middle of the top, so a Chinese-water-torture-style trickle ran down the middle of my face the whole time. While I’m glad I got a chance to clear my head, a little thoughtfulness may have been a good idea, and the walk postponed.

Now that I demonstrated to myself the need for more attention these matters by getting very cold and very wet, I think I may find keeping them in mind a little easier.

Right Speech

Lately, there has been an epidemic of cruelty among the girls in this house. In all the discord, which often turns violent, it is the words that upset me most. Such terribly withering and snide insults these verbally gifted females are hurling at each other! They are using their powers for evil, and we are all suffering for it. So I got an idea on how to fix it once I stumbled upon this quotation from Paul to the Ephesians:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

This wise guideline struck me immediately as something we needed to keep front and center for a while, till being more careful with our words became automatic. I remembered the Buddha’s advice on this matter, and decided we could add that in for good measure. It turns out that lots of people have realized the importance of how we “use our words,” and have made pretty posters on the topic. I gathered two pre-made posters I liked, and made one for the quotation above, before laminating and cutting them out:

posters

The next step, I decided, was to have each girl be in charge of one poster, and read it to the rest of us. She was then asked to explain what she thought the poster was advising. Each girl did very well with this, and got the main message I had hoped to convey: If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.

Each girl was then responsible for hanging her poster in a location known to be a hotbed of contention and conflict. While they are experts at picking a fight anywhere, any time, about anyTHING, some areas leaped out at us: the DINING ROOM, the AREA NEAR THE TV, and the BEDROOM. The plan was then to hope that, during a conflict, someone along the way would catch herself or others using unfortunate speech and point silently to the poster in that area, prompting a peaceful regroup.

This is where the plan — so elegant, so teacherly — went awry (i.e., in the application in a real-life family). First, the girls fought about who got to post in what area. Why did Lily insist on using FIVE pieces of tape instead of the four apiece I had designated, so someone was shortchanged on purpose (Emma argued)? Jane also pointed out to all that THEY weren’t the boss, and she would act freely, thank you. For laughs, Lily hung hers in an obscure location. Next, the girls each monitored MY speech with laser-like intensity, and pointed sarcastically to the signs, quickly zeroing in on precisely which principle I had violated. After that demoralizing fol-de-rol, the posters remain in locations Damon and I later moved them to, living testaments to my wrong-headed idealism. However, I can’t stop hoping that their presence will slowly make some sort of impact in this escalating war zone, three tokens of nonviolence that weren’t there before. There goes my idealism again.

Feet

I am of two minds on children’s feet. On the one hand, it infuriates me when the persistent — almost pathological — carelessness of my children’s eight feet make a mess of our house and possessions. The damage comes in many different forms: there is the mud, the water, the snow, and occasionally even the poop, that gets tracked across our carpet and linoleum. There is the marking up of coats and jackets and hats and gloves with dirty footprints, as everything becomes a jumbled heap in our extremely small entryway. Worst of all to me, though, is the random and explosive scattering of papers, books, toys, and blocks that takes mere seconds when those feet come charging through. Not one of those eight feet will make any effort to preserve the integrity of any pile, because none of the foot owners ever look down at all. Anything on the floor will get the same treatment as dirt or grass or pavement outside.

However, the fact that those busy heads never look down is really a sign that the children’s lives are too full and busy for such details. I love that those careless feet never walk anywhere — I hear the stampede of hundreds of elephants, it would seem, as one or more runs up to get a critical item from the bedroom that is needed outdoors in the latest clubhouse. Another is willing to devote no more than thirty seconds to a call of nature, and so runs at breakneck pace both to and from the bathroom. I love how alive those little bodies are, and how excited they are by almost anything that happens on any given day, such that asking them to mind their feet is as pointless and as undesirable as asking them not to feel. The energy that lights up my children’s lives from sun-up to sundown is always beautiful to me, even when it can be careless and frenetic. I wouldn’t give that up. If those feet slow down, so does the pace and heartbeat of childhood itself, and I am not anxious ever to see the end of that era. So I will keep the eight crazy little feet and learn to keep my grown-up worries in places where they don’t care to tread yet.

Special Time

I am taking the second level of a parenting class that runs once a week for 10 weeks. I first took classes there a couple years ago, and have been itching to get back and remind myself about the philosophy and techniques this “school” uses, based on Adlerian psychology. We parents are given a wealth of tools to use to encourage our children and build positive relationships with them at the same time that we are teaching them responsibility, resilience, and compassion. One concept that has had nearly miraculous results here is “Special Time,” which involves spending 15 to 20 minutes with one child at a time, with no distractions, doing exactly what the child wants you to do together. It gives him or her some power for those few minutes, and since feeling robbed of power is one of the big precipitators of misbehavior, this is an attempt to head that whole dynamic off at the pass. In general, on a less formal level, I try to keep in mind the importance of building as many positive interactions with everyone as possible, to offset and hopefully outweigh the negative ones. I do lots of baking, crafting, and family trips to that end. But the minutes spent in Special Time are truly transformative.

Yesterday, I started with Lily, as she is my “Problem Child of the Month,” which is probably not a great thing to have labeled her in my mind. She had so many things she wanted to squeeze into our minutes together, but we focused on two: a lively game of Red Rover played with stuffed animals (a family favorite) and “craft time.” She came up with the brilliant idea of having me print a picture of an elephant with an upraised trunk so that she could glue a bunch of hearts on as though they were blowing out of his trunk. I cut the hearts while she glued, and then created a quick frame. She finished up while I moved on to my next Special Time child, but within a very few minutes, she had finished this amazing piece:

IMG_1312[1]

I can’t get over the genius of the title “Elephant in Love.”

Emma decided to mimic Lily’s activity, which is a common occurrence, but she had her own twist on it. She wanted to make a book about our family. We always have a huge stack of drawing paper at the ready, so we quickly stapled some together and got started. She asked me to write some letters on the cover, and was absolutely blown away by my (pretty standard) ability to do block lettering. In fact, our whole time together was spent in complimenting each other on our amazing skills. And we were utterly sincere. She truly couldn’t believe how cool the designs were that I made within the letters, and I couldn’t believe what she did with that idea on her own letters. She thought my colorful fireworks were awesome, and we both congratulated each other on our general creativity. It was one big Mutual Admiration Society meeting. All we were able to work on was the cover, but it’s a beauty:

IMG_1315[1]

Last was Jane, the biggest attention hog of all, and she and I finally got to sit down with the sewing kit she got for Christmas to work on putting together a stuffed elephant. (The day appears to have had an elephant theme.) I have almost daily said, for a month now, “I can’t do that right now” to her about that elephant, and it was a relief to both of us for me to be able to sit down and get out all the parts and get it all organized at last. Now she has everything in one place and just asks for threading help as she powers through in her free moments. Our actual Special Time, though, was my favorite time of all, because the one thing I stink at doing is sitting down anywhere for 15 minutes, and it felt good to sink myself into a creative project and work with my hands. I am a sewer and handcrafter from way back, so this was an especially nice treat for me! My favorite moment was when Jane discovered a thimble and said, “Wow! This is a DELUXE sewing kit!” So easily impressed — which is a good thing.

IMG_1316[1]

The power of those three Special Times has reverberated through the next 24 hours. It has been far from a bed of roses, though: the minute right after Lily’s ended, she said, “I hate you,” and I admit to being a little peeved that Old Lily was back so quickly. But we have all reflected many times on how fun the projects were, how nice the conversations were, and how we can’t wait to do it again. It is hard to sustain Special Time, and it is hard to ever achieve that perfect one-on-one state with one of me and four of them running loose, but they don’t let me forget about it, and I’m grateful. It is the most valuable tool in my toolbox.

Closed Doors, Open Windows

This is a moment in my life when absolutely every door feels closed. Worse, I felt confident that I was onto some good things, but with a resounding crash, it has all fallen around my ears. Here is the dilemma: I understand that this is a time of life when new vistas may be opening up before me, and that I can’t see them at the moment. However, I feel like I have essentially been in this same place for years, and that my couple of directions of hope have led to dead ends, so really, are there going to be open windows? In the midst of pain and confusion, I want so much to believe in the next direction. The only real nugget of potential that I can see is that maybe these misadventures, too, will somehow have truly been part of the learning about what’s next, and that they weren’t dead ends after all. It’s just time to branch off now. This is what I will hope for, if not believe in, for the next few days as I puzzle out the future.

Space

I have been given a bit of a reprieve this week, with the older three in a camp for much of the day. I have had the chance, with more breathing room, to give some quality time to Tim, who has pretty much been dragged this summer from pillar to post in our quest for absorbing fun for everyone, while his preference is a much slower pace. I always struggle to give any of my four children quality time the way I’d like to, but now that summer is winding down, so am I. That early summer energy has evaporated, and slowing down is my deepest craving. With this week’s unexpected opportunity to follow a more relaxed rhythm, I developed the theory that it would actually be possible to “schedule” “space” for me and Tim. Yes, the dishes and laundry and other housework would all get done, hundreds of meals would all be prepared, but nestled into that activity would be a breathable pause each day this week, for Tim and me to just be. So I set aside the hour from 10 to 11, intending that that time be completely open and slow and Tim-driven.

We began on the first day by cutting paper. Tim is getting a kick these days out of painstakingly cutting hundreds of tiny slits in a piece of paper — toward no particular end. I keep him company and talk to him and stay next to him, but he’s really doing his own thing in a very focused way.

When even the deliberate Tim started losing interest in this, I asked if he wanted to go outside to swing. Normally, 99 times out of 100, if Tim asks me to push him on the swing, I am unavailable for one reason or another. His face lit up at hearing ME offer, for once.

Like Jane, the oldest, Tim is an epic swinger. He can swing for an hour straight. It is so nice and green and peaceful in our backyard, so this was a golden opportunity for some quiet time together. We listened to the sounds around us, and he became eager to know more about cicadas, since we rarely actually see one. In the process of explaining what I knew about them, we learned a bit about trees, too. We swang in silence for while longer, and then Tim said, “I’m tired.” Rarely do we have the chance to listen to our real body rhythms, we two. We are too busy running. It felt so good to let him follow his own lead on what his body needed.

So we came in, got a drink, watched a couple You Tube videos about cicadas, read a book, and off he went to sleep. No nap in the car, squeezed between errands. No curtailed nap squeezed between drop-offs and pick-ups. Just a long, slow, lazy summer nap.

I got to enjoy the peaceful feeling lingering on as he slept, and pondered the discovery I’d made: that space CAN be scheduled, and slow rhythms are possible within the madness. That is not a lesson I want to forget.

Half Hours and Setting Limits

In my ongoing quest to combat perfectionism and chronic late-night attempts to do it all, I have developed this new idea about time that is making a big difference: allotting half-hour chunks for the big stuff. The things that torture me are the more global, strategic, long-term plans I have for my family, each of my children, myself, my marriage, and so on, and it is awfully hard to say, “There! I am finished working on that.” Not only that, but knowing that these brain-fillers are never going to go away and will always be changing and growing and throwing curve balls, “done-ness” is not even a reasonable goal. So I have to find a way to put in time on them, but also be ready to walk away and do all the recharging necessary to get up and do it all again. Clearly, I won’t survive otherwise. This way, matters are getting addressed but I still get to check a box that says “done” at the end of the day. Here is a list of 5 things just off the top of my head that are ongoing projects I want to put time into researching, and there are dozens more.

  1. Books for the kids (at appropriate reading level, challenging, address interests of the moment, acceptable moral content….)
  2. Family activities that take advantage of our area and ages and interests and don’t cost very much.
  3. Music or creative activities for the kids that don’t cost very much but expose them to new and enriching ideas.
  4. The best ways to maintain flow of inventory efficiently and keep costs down.
  5. Meals to try or other food-related strategies to satisfy picky eaters but make them less picky!

I am still working on what exactly gets those half hours and what falls into what category. But it’s a start.

Previous Older Entries